‘The Ruins of Lifta’: Film Review

Courtesy of First Run Features
A thoughtful lesson in history — and listening.
9/23/2016

A Jewish American filmmaker explores conflict in Jerusalem through the prism of a threatened piece of Palestinian history.

Subtitled “Where the Holocaust and Nakba Meet,” the documentary The Ruins of Lifta is a first-person search for common ground where seemingly none exists. Directors Menachem Daum and Oren Rudavsky may not solve Israeli-Palestinian animosities, but they find illuminating angles of exploration for one of the world’s most intractable conflicts.

Daum, an Orthodox Jew from New York, is the onscreen questioner in the intimately shot doc, seeking answers about Israel and Palestine beyond what he was taught. In conversation with residents of the region, he’s a middle-aged innocent, his curiosity and openness to other points of view driving the film. At the center of his quest is a ghost town called Lifta, a collection of stone structures on a steep hill at the western edge of Jerusalem.

Lifta was one of many villages that Palestinians were expelled from during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, but it’s the only one that wasn’t subsequently destroyed or repopulated by Jews. In a flash of cross-cultural connection, Daum calls it an “Arab shtetl.”

Israeli plans to raze Lifta and build luxury housing have united progressive Israelis and Palestinians in coalitions working to protect the ruins and the story they tell. Daum joins the effort, participating by Skype and during his frequent trips to Jerusalem. During those visits, one of the leaders of the initiative, a man of gentle bearing and fierce commitment named Yacoub Odeh, is Daum’s chief sparring partner in conversations that expose painful truths and can only gesture toward reconciliation.  

Through their cautiously friendly dialectic, the documentary examines two antithetical historical narratives. On one side the Holocaust, and on the other the 1948 Palestinian exodus known as the Nakba, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs became refugees. Odeh’s family was among them; he remembers playing on Lifta’s hillside, and he remembers how the displacement broke his father’s spirit. “We have roots,” he says. “We didn’t fall from the moon.”

Other former residents recall camaraderie among Muslims, Christians and Jews, while archival footage of the refugees offers its own haunting commentary. Daum’s conversations with historians lend clarifying context as well as complexity to the portrait of Lifta that emerges; whatever the village’s fate, the film contributes to a communal push toward resurrection.

Daum’s investigation, which entails seeing his “heroic” Zionist uncle in a new light, puts him out on a limb. His Holocaust survivor parents taught him not to trust Gentiles, and his compassionate interest in Lifta (and Poland, documented in Hiding and Seeking) has alienated all his Orthodox friends. The exception is Dasha Rittenberg, a survivor whose meeting with Odeh — Daum’s hopeful “experiment” in diplomacy — proves as frustrating and tender as it is telling.

Yet theirs is a far more heartening exchange than Daum’s chat with a group of tween Israeli girls, whose view of Lifta and of Arabs is thoroughly dispiriting. Whether they and others growing up in the region will ever question the history they’ve been taught, as Daum is doing — whether they’ll ever truly acknowledge other experiences — is a matter of critical concern for anyone seeking a meaningful peace.

Daum’s optimism can be tone-deaf, as Odeh’s pained reactions make clear. A historian chastises him for his well-meaning “chutzpah,” born of privilege and naïveté. But Daum is trying, and to his and Rudavsky’s credit, their edifying film doesn’t look away when he gets it wrong.

Distributor: First Run Features
Directors-writers-producers: Menachem Daum, Oren Rudavsky

Editor: Nick August-Perna
Composers: Clare Manchon, Olivier Manchon  

Not rated, 77 minutes

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